Thursday, October 16, 2008

carbon ecologies - richard thomas

On the second floor of the Carlton Hotel in the Melbourne CBD (2nd flr, 193 Bourke St.) are a handful of ex-hotel rooms (with cutely numbered doors) that are housing Richard Thomas' exhibition Carbon Ecologies for the next couple of days. On the floor below, hundreds of men and women in smart office attire sipped their after-work beer as the artist's friends, acquaintances and family members packed themselves into the tiny rooms to enjoy a series of international works, the first of which was created in 1998, well before Carbon was a trendy dinner party conversation topic in Hawthorn, Toorak and Canberra.

There's something much more raw about attending an exhibition in a cramped and tired suite of rooms above a bustling hotel than in visiting (for instance) a glossy, glitzy showcase of Art-Deco at the NGV. In Thomas' case, and especially for the work he was exhibiting, the venue was (almost) perfect. What I've seen of his work is down-to-earth and deliberately rough-hewn. It would have been disconcerting, perhaps even hypocritical, to see these works arrayed across a glistening, echoic and expansive gallery. Or would it? The artist might have been pleased with an NGV blockbuster.

The two works at the exhibition that most attracted my attention were Brown Out (2008), "a simulated coal face, using brown coal from the Mattingley coal mine near Bacchus Marsh. Brown coal is being burnt in real time to generate the electricity which lights the installation." and Carbon Cycle 2 (1999) which was realised as part of the Natural Disasters exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art (Curated by Zara Stanhope). Three metal trays presented the three primary materials providing energy and transforming terrestrial carbon into carbon dioxide, these being coal, oil and wood carbon."

Why did these works attract my attention in particular? Carbon Cycle 2 is a beautiful installation in all ways. I am strongly in favour of beauty in art! Firstly the viewer is struck by the textural qualities of the materials. The matte black irregularity of the coal and the slick mirrored surface of the oil make this a fascinating aesthetic object. At least one woman reached down to touch the oil, attempting to reconcile the shiny hard surface with her understanding that it was in fact liquid. These boxes of unfathomably dense black are also difficult to reconcile with the invisible gaseous CO2 that is emitted when they are oxidised. It seems absurd that their solidity can depart in this way. I suppose Carbon is not unlike the soul of these materials. As they are exhumed and cremated the soul is left to wander about the atmosphere causing strife. The work is sublime in the way that Malevich's Black Square or a Rothko is sublime. I would have appreciated a chair beside the work so that I could sit and gaze into the inky darkness. If people were so inclined perhaps they could also sit and contemplate their own reflection in the slick oil - Narcissus sees himself reflected in the oil he burns.

Brown Out is a fantastic surprise. "Down the corridor and on the left" ...directions you'd be given at any hotel to find your room. But step inside and your feet are nearly buried in a mass of steeply sloping coal dotted with blackened bulbs. Never one to shun hard work, I expect Thomas carted all this coal up two steep flights of CBD stairs, slaved away in a tiny, dusty room (no doubt for many hours) in order to confront the visitor with such a spectacle. Considering the show is on for a mere three days I find this even more marvellous!

Indeed, we were burning the coal fires as we chatted under the installed lighting. Thankfully though even this was taken into account. The emissions of the exhibition are offset through his own company, I am so glad I caught public transport to the opening!

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